Naturally, the poet is gardener, nurturer of words and ideas, and the gardener who chooses from many plants—whether for duration of blooms, size, or color—is poet and artist working on page or canvas of fenced yard, or creating a meadow out of a plowed field. Yesterday, I was rescue-digging around arborvitae where the roots had never broken free from the clay root-balls, clay which seals out water, so now the trees are dying, one gone already, but maybe I can interject dirt into the clay and save the rest. Digging, I saw my first nightcrawler which squirmed across the dirt and, if stretched out, would have been as long as my forearm.
The three poems ostensibly of planting that I have been reading are Planting the Sand Cherry (1988) by Ann Struthers, Mary Makofske’s Planting The Meadow (Poetry magazine, May 2001), and May Sarton’s A Country Incident (Poetry magazine, November 1961). Each poem title is linked to the Poetry Foundation web site where you can read the entire poem.
In Mary Makofske’s poem Planting The Meadow, the title is descriptive and the poem contains ample language of gardens (hedge, sprigs, boxwood, topiary, seedlings, false indigo, hyssop, daisies, flax) but distress creeps in with words like errant, frail, unplowed, and unkempt so you see that more than a meadow is being planted. The planting is linked to an internal landscape where more than plants are pruned (“clip the errant sprigs of thought”) and human characteristics (like trust and hearts) appear unexpectedly (“. . . frail seedlings in the unplowed field, trusting / the wildness hidden in their hearts”). Indeed, the language of Makofske’s meadow epitomizes wildness as the human voice settles on escape: “I leave the formal garden of schedules / where hours hedge me, . . .” The switching becomes dreamy, slipping into an ephemera of clouds and weather, and the timelessness of imagination. The meadow being planted one frail seedling at a time becomes an abstraction like thought or memory where “. . . In time, outside of time, / the unkempt afternoons fill up with flowers.”
Anne Struthers’ poem Planting the Sand Cherry begins: “Today I planted the sand cherry with red leaves— / and hope that I can go on digging in this yard. . .” A question is a good way to pique interest and indeed, I am tantalized. What is changing? What is it that might stop the digging? Illness? Moving? Winter? There is a luxuriance of images, such as “pruning the grape vine, twisting the silver lace / on its trellis, the one that bloomed / just before the frost flowered over all the garden.”
Sand cherries grow wild in some regions but there is also an ornamental sand cherry, a red-leaved tree with tiny pink blossoms. I do not know which sand cherry is being planted or whether it matters. What does matter is the language. Scan down the poem and you will see words of time like today, next spring, now, and sometimes. Gardeners are masters of plotting what to plant, scouring catalogs, trading plants, and always, during winter, planning: “Next spring I will plant more zinnias, marigolds, / straw flowers, pearly everlasting, and bleeding heart.” But a poet’s sphere is mortality and what sounds like a gardener’s reasonable choices can be unraveled into a different story. The flowers planted in Struthers’ garden include marigolds which are garish midsummer blooms, pungently scented. Touch a strawflower and you feel a dry paperiness, like husks. “Pearly everlasting” and “bleeding heart” are not raucous or bristly but hold the language of sorrow and hope.
“I plant that for you, old love, old friend, / and lilacs for remembering.”
In my mind, I re-shelve Planting The Sand Cherry to elegies. Lily of the valley symbolizes tears (Mary’s or Eve’s), blood, and humility. Lily of the Valley is a spreading and sometimes invasive plant, and it is poisonous. By midsummer, you will see Lily of the Valley appear as in Struthers’ poem:
“. . . broad blade leaves are streaked with brown / and the stem dried to a pail hair. / In place of the silent bells, red berries / like rose hips blaze close to the ground.”
Red! Vibrant and flamboyant but also the color of blood. Planting The Sand Cherry returns from the elegy-world to the goodness of planting, and with a sense of healing, as in mercy, and thoughtfulness—a communion with earth, self, and memories:
“It is important for me to be down on my knees.”
Weeds become the parishioners or children (“Sometimes I save a weed if its leaves / are spread fern-like, hand-like, / or it grows with a certain impertinence”). The poet/narrator keeps (saves) those she adores or forgives. Planting the Sand Cherry ends with:
“I save the violets in spring. People who kill violets / will do anything.”
This is a delightful paradox coming from the poet/narrator who has done everything—digging, planting, communing with earth and plants, but then refuses to destroy violets which must be growing like weeds. As capable as she has been, she is not one who will do anything.
What is the difference between everything and anything? If you do everything, would you not also do anything? Is the line between everything and anything saving the violets?
In May Sarton’s A Country Incident, compulsive planting and hope also appear:
“Absorbed in planting bulbs, that work of hope,”
but the gardener’s concentration is interrupted by a neighbor who wishes to visit. Imagine that you have found the meditative digging rhythm:
“And I was caught upon the difficult choice— / to yield the last half hour of precious light, / Or to stay on my knees, absurd and rude; . . .”
The poet/narrator considers how her behavior strikes the other but also shows an empathy toward “This kindly neighbor who destroyed a mood;” My vote: ignore the pesky neighbor. But the encounter offers a pondering that haunts the poet/narrator. The second twelve-line stanza begins:
“What it is to be caught up in each day / Like a child fighting imaginary wars, / Converting work into this passionate play, . . .”
Is this the reaction of a recluse? Or just annoyance at interruption? Is this a poem of self-incrimination or self-awareness?
It is a powerful move when a poet brings her father into the poem.
“Poet as recluse? No, what comes to me / Is how my father looked out of his eyes, / And how he fought for his own passionate play.”
Sarton relays her father’s advice and so her path (to righteousness?) includes asking forgiveness from her neighbor although she continues to mull her reaction. Without the neighbor’s interruption, there would have been no poem, no reason for Sarton to recall her father’s actions and advice.
Makofske and Struthers consummate their planting meditations with metaphors and an unlikely switching (or pairing) of human and plant characteristics. Rather than easy resolutions, both Makofske’s and Struthers’ poems end with fanciful images where time is suspended, as in “the unkempt afternoons fill up with flowers” (Makofske) and “I save the violets in spring. People who kill violets / will do anything” (Struthers).
Planting The Meadow (Poetry, May 2001) by Mary Makofske – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/30406
A Country Incident (Poetry magazine, November 1961), May Sarton – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/18055
Photos: Katie Eberhart.